About Rice and Beans: Following recent discussions on food here on Anthropology in Practice, this week I’ll feature a four part series that that explores the ways immigrant groups in Corona, NY are involved in creating generic versions of their cultures to support themselves.

Today’s article looks at examples of the commodification of culture from around the world.

Also in this series:
(1) Rice and Beans: How Does Culture Become Generic?

We’ve been selling culture for some time in today’s market-oriented global economy. For example, “cultural villages” emerged in South Africa starting in the 1980s to market local practices. To advertise these villages, a giant billboard was mounted in Cape Town across the street from the South African Heritage Resources Agency bearing a seductive young Zulu woman wearing colorful beads. She dominated this billboard, representing what adventure-seeking tourists wanted to see when they got to the cultural village: an exotic, erotic Other. She was sanctioned for that purpose, becoming part of a veritable tribal brand created by the ZwaZulu-Natal Tourism Authority.

The forces of globalization have brought people together from the corners of the globe; the local is less so in this modern world. A result of this closeness is an awareness of difference—which leads to the idea that essences make peoples into concrete others. This categorization permits the sale of indigenous knowledge (e.g., ceramics, remedies for illnesses, licensed shamanism) to consumers of the exotic. These elements of indigenous knowledge represent the substantial components of culture: food/cooking, pot making, and bush medicine are essential elements of culture that are created and managed by the skills of individuals. This form of culture is generated in the private sphere. And in this way, culture is created through the efforts of the family within the family, laying the foundation for the larger national culture.

National culture—culture at large—exists in public spaces and takes the form of national festivals, such as Carnival, national pastimes, and overall, the national image. It is the culture that the rest of the world uses to identify cultural others on a global stage. Ideas of national culture must be supported by indigenous knowledge to be successful.

Despite the connection of national culture to the private, the sale of national culture is largely mediated by the state, which is invested in the ways the country is perceived for political and economic reasons. For example, when Thailand was selected as the site for the 1991 meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Thai officials declared that the city was to be cleaned because the national image was on the line. They believed anything that was dirty or disorderly would contribute to a flawed representation of the national image. They did not want Thailand’s moment on the global stage to be marred by the perception that the country suffered from abject poverty, so “cleaning” efforts were focused on planting new greenery, repainting roadside signs, and imprisoning small-time crooks. Thailand undertook the process of branding itself for these international meetings.

The Brazilian Carnival helps illustrate the importance of national brands. In Episode Number 284 (“Blame It On Lisa”) of the popular American cartoon television series The Simpsons, the cartoon family travels to Rio de Janeiro during Carnival to find a missing orphan boy. The city is shown as overrun with monkeys and rats, and the Carnival of Rio de Janeiro is explicitly sexual, pervasive, and chaotic. In response to the episode, the city of Rio de Janeiro intended to sue the producers of The Simpsons for undermining its million-dollar tourism campaign. The reputation that Brazil had so carefully crafted around its Rio carnival was threatened. An element of Brazil’s national culture was presented negatively to the global audience, and Brazilian officials believed there could be serious ramifications for the development of the nation. Sound familiar? This echoes the concerns of the Thai officials who called for a national cleanup.

In both Thailand and Brazil, a particular image of culture was challenged, and a new image was introduced for specific aims. In Thailand, officials wanted to position themselves as equal to the visiting parties. In Brazil, the country’s outrage was directed at what was perceived to be an attack on the cultural identity of the citizens, and officials moved to preserve the national image. The Tourism board had spent $18 million promoting the city and believed that the episode would have a “drastic consequences” in the US market—particularly perhaps since this episode aired in the midst of the 2002 spring break season when thousands of American college students flock to these types of exotic locations.

A great deal of effort has gone into the marketing of culture for these places and people. They have seized their history and are claiming it as a product in accordance with a growing trend where identity is claimed as property, and as such can be branded and sold. The San Bushmen lead hikes through the terrain during the day, and dance and tell stories in the evening for an audience of tourists before changing out of loin cloths to return to their shanty settlements while visitors stay in luxury chalets. Today, the San Bushmen do not perform these cultural acts for audiences. Instead, actors entertain tourists. This is possible because the San Bushmen have branded themselves as trackers, as tribal storytellers, as wearers of loincloths, so they can package those identities and allow others to wear them. They can sanction their usage because they have shaped how they will be deployed. They have found a way to market their Otherness. What they are selling in their dances is their national culture.

Indigenous knowledge is distinct from national culture because it represents the substance of culture. Culture is a connective element—transmitted by those substances that are easily circulated, such as food and carries an element of identity in it. It links people and facilitates culture and cultural knowledge. It has the ability to represent, dispense, and define a cultural identity, by drawing on an authority derived from its origin in private spaces. Food is closest to the people; it is truly indigenous—and as indigenous knowledge, it is deployed by cultural owners for specific purposes.

Cultural commodification bears a direct relationship to the growth of ethnic neighborhoods. When groups of immigrants of the same ethnicity settle in the same neighborhoods, they come to rely on each other to reinforce their cultural knowledge and understanding. For example, Richmond Hill, NY is a West Indian neighborhood where natives from the Caribbean countries of Trinidad and Tobago, and Guyana have settled. They imported a sense of national consciousness with music, food, and drink items, such as Caramel Bars and Solo brand sodas, and other similar types of “sweet drinks.” In Trinidad, Solo has a part to play in cultural identity: It occupies a specific niche because the Solo drinker has drunk Solo from childhood; he is not about to change. Liberty Avenue, which is somewhat of a main street in the area with many shops and services, boasts several Trinidadian style roti shops, where “doubles” and “aloo” pies—popular food fare—are among the number one purchases for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Trinidadian immigrants have authored themselves through Solo brand drinks, doubles, and aloo pies. In Corona, Hispanics are doing the same thing by importing ethnic foods and music. In importing these essences, these groups have simultaneously created a market for them and created a link to their homeland.

The identification of Trinidadian immigrants with Solo brand drinks feels immensely personal. It is something that connects them to others via a shared experience. It is essential to their cultural identity. By marketing this essence, they reveal to the public an element of being Trinidadian. Market visibility means recognition as an entity and the ability to claim an identity. These identities are often out of reach for groups who are not already recognized on the global stage. For them, culture must be sold so it can be claimed. But in choosing particular substances to market, they create a particular image—a generic image. They do not have the resources of the public at their disposal and as a result can only project generalized representations of their identity—so all Trinidadians are identified by Solo drinks, and Mexicans by rice and beans.

Carsten, Janet (2001). “Sustantivism, Antisubstantivism, and Anti-antisubstantivism” in Relative Values. Eds. Sarah Franklin and Susan McKinnon. Duke: University Press.
Comaroff, John and Comaroff, Jean (2009). Ethnicity, Inc. Chicago: University Press.
Hutchinson, Sharon Elaine (2000). “Identity and Substance: The Broadening Bases of Relatedness Among the Nuer of Southern Sudan” in Cultures of Relatedness. Eds. Janet Carsten. Cambridge: University Place.
Klima, Alan (2002). The Funeral Casino: Meditation, Massacre, and Exchange with the Dead in Thailand. Princeton: University Press.
Miller, Dennis (1995). “Consumption and Commodities.” Annual Review of Anthropology 24: 141 – 161.
Miller, Dennis (1997). Capitalism: An Ethnographic Approach. Oxford: Berg.
Schneider, David (1985). “What is Kinship All About?” in Kinship Studies in the Morgan Centennial Year. Eds. Priscilla Reining. Washington DC: The Anthropological Society of Washington.

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